Every so often, Memories of Shibuya lets an outside writer do a guest series for the blog’s Artist Spotlight articles; this one comes from reader Josh Anderson, a long-time J-music buff and apparent Capsule superfan. Often one of the most divisive figures in Shibuya-kei, Yasutaka Nakata is still nevertheless one of the most popular names in the genre, and it is a pleasure to present a guest series from someone so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about this polarizing figure.
While some purists might argue Yasutaka Nakata’s brand of “Shibuya-kei” was “neo-” if it ever did qualify for the genre, the early output of his two-person group Capsule has drawn enough comparisons to Pizzicato Five to justify an examination of the band. J-pop juggernaut Nakata is best known today as the creative force behind Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, his talent for writing unusually jazzy electronica cited as an influence by Western, so-called “complextro” artists such as Madeon, Porter Robinson, and Zedd. However, Nakata did not become “one of Japan’s most influential pop producers” before spending the early 2000s perfecting and evolving the retro-futurist lounge pop sounds of Shibuya-kei.
Nakata formed Capsule in late 1997 after asking Toshiko Koshijima, a girl he met at the Hokuriku Teens’ Music Festival, to sing on his home-produced tracks. Both were 17 at the time, and with Nakata soon departing for the Tokyo School of Music, leaving Koshijima behind in their native Kanazawa, the group would not release their debut album until four years later.
Even for a band that has gone through several profound stylistic changes throughout the years, Capsule’s first LP, High Collar Girl, is noticeably distinct from the rest of the band’s output. Nakata was responsible for all of the lyrics and composition, but none of the arrangements; instead, he provided label Yamaha with demos of each of the songs, which were then re-recorded by professional studio musicians. The result was sixty-six minutes of inoffensive, somewhat insipid pop. A couple of keyboard-heavy tracks dabble in lounge pop vibes, and the album flirts with electronica—the chiptune opening track, “Samurai Logic,” sounds like the title screen to a Gameboy game—but these foreshadowings toward Capsule’s electronic future are anomalies. While the neat instrumental track “Utsutsu” became the theme to a film of the same name, the album sold very poorly, failing to appear anywhere on the Oricon charts.
After this experience, Nakata took matters into his own hands—in a big way. From that point on, Nakata assumed full responsibility for recording, mixing, and eventually mastering his music. Rather than hire outside musicians to fill in the gaps of his productions, he was more likely to sample other recordings, inevitably moving him into the Yasuharu Konishi school of plunderphonics.
Next, Nakata founded his own sub-label, Contemode. While still under the Yamaha umbrella, Contemode afforded Nakata a much higher degree of creative freedom. He signed on a handful of neo-Shibuya-kei contemporaries and released the label’s first album, Cutie Cinema Replay, in 2003. While Cutie is billed as the second Capsule album, nearly all of the tracks are collaborations with other Contemode artists, making the LP feel more like a compilation showcasing the new label. Koshijima only gets one track to herself, despite being the official other half of the band, but what a track it is—a Latin groove-flavored reimagining of an earlier single, “Music Controller.” The other standout track of the album is “Sweet Time Replay,” opening with bossa-nova piano chords that catapult the LP into an energy and jazziness High Collar Girl never approached.
Similar to the way Pizzicato Five dedicated albums to cities, Cutie Cinema Replay seems to be an ode to France—a curious fixation on a foreign country never to be repeated in the rest of the band’s discography. Nakata himself opens and closes the album in spoken French, and listeners can often pick out an accordion in the hyperactive, densely packed instrumentation throughout the LP. A goofy song in the middle of the album called “French Lesson” features someone named “Sabou et Mamie” counting to trois over accordion, horns, and slide whistle.
By the end of the same year, the band released their third LP—another guest-heavy project barely cracking thirty minutes. Titled Phony Phonic, it feels largely like a continuation of Cutie Cinema Replay, minus the Francophilia. Even after less than a year between releases, Nakata grew as a songwriter; Phony Phonic is undoubtedly a more consistent album. The opening track (if one ignores the twinkly, sub-thirty-second intro) is “RGB,” a wistful song Nakata would eventually recycle for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s live shows. The lyrics of tracks like “Cosmic Tone Cooking” and the excellent closer “Hanjuuryoku Ryokou” hint at the sci-fi themes that would come to define the next era of the band’s discography, a trilogy of albums that would see some of the finest moments of their career and even lead to collaborations with famed animation company Studio Ghibli.